Scandal at High Chimneys – John Dickson Carr (1959)

ScandalAtHighChimneysScandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me.  Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story.  I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period).  The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.

With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect.  The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest.  The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in.  While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.

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Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)

DeathComesAsTheEnd2The phrase “historical mystery” instantly brings to mind John Dickson Carr.  The author shifted his focus from contemporary Golden Age mysteries starting with The Bride of Newgate (1950) and contributed heavily to the sub-genre up until his final novel – The Hungry Goblin.  His historical works cover ground between the seventeenth century (The Devil in Velvet) up until the time of his own birth (The Witch of the Low Tide) and I’ve seen several comments claiming that he basically created the historical mystery.

Or does Agatha Christie hold that title?  Death Comes as the End, published in 1945, came out five years before The Bride of Newgate.  Set in ancient Egypt, the tale of death stalking a high priest’s family certainly checks the boxes for historical and mystery.  It’s worth mentioning though that Carr had two prior historical works – the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) and Devil Kinsmere (1934), although I haven’t read the later and I’m not certain that it qualifies as a mystery.

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Alas For Her That Met Me! – Christianna Brand as Mary Ann Ashe (1976)

AlasForHerFear not – I haven’t abandoned my focus on GAD mysteries and impossible crime in exchange for 1970’s romance novels (well, not that I’m admitting…).  Alas For Her That Met Me! is a late career novel by my personal Queen of Crime, Christianna Brand.  Yes, the cover and the title may have you scratching your head, but I assure you there’s a reason behind this madness.

I’ve absolutely loved the Brand books that I’ve read so far.  The author has a wit to her writing, a strange ability to forge a bond between the reader and her characters, and one of the most skilled hands at misdirection that I’ve yet to encounter.  Unfortunately, she only wrote 10 murder mysteries – or so I’ve been told.  I’ve found it difficult to really piece Brand’s career together, with the best reference I’ve been able to find being Wikipedia (never a good sign…).  There’s the Inspector Cockrill series, for which she’s known, and then a handful of lesser known mystery novels featuring Inspector Chucky and Inspector Charlesworth – of those, only Death in High Heels really garners any attention.  Brand seems to have ended her core mystery writing career in the mid-1950’s, with Tour de Force being her last “classic” title.

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The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)

brideofnewgateThe Bride of Newgate is the first of John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries.  Well, in a certain sense.  It was preceded by Devil Kinsmere (published under the alias of Roger Fairbairn) in 1934 (and later republished in 1964 as Most Secret) and the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1936.  The Bride of Newgate was the beginning of what I see as Carr’s core historical run, lasting from its publishing in 1950 through to The Demoniacs in 1962.

Most of these stories follow somewhat of a formula.  A hero is accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and must race against time and conspiring forces to solve the mystery – a puzzle that is somewhat light by Carr’s typical standards.  Along the way he’ll win the heart and protect the honor of his one true love.  There will be daring feats and duels, often involving humiliating a brash member of the upper crust.  Oh, and time travel – there may be some of that.

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Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr (1955)

CaptainCutThroat3Avast ye swabs!  Batten down the hatches!  Tonight we set sail on the high seas with John Dickson Carr’s Captain Cut-Throat!

Oh….er…you say there aren’t any pirates?  Well, forgive me for thinking so.  I’ve collected a number of copies of this book (as evidenced by my cover shots) completely by accident.  With 70+ books, the most economical means for collecting Carr’s works has been to buy in bulk.  My very first parcel of Carr included a copy of Captain Cut-Throat, and down to the very bottom of the pile it went.  I simply wasn’t interested.

I came into the works of the author with a singular focus – I wanted impossible crimes and his most famous titles provided the perfect blend of what I was looking for.  Why read a novel that trades impossibilities for a historical action romp?  I might as well read some random swashbuckler books from authors I’ve never heard of.  Sorry, but not my thing.

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The Hungry Goblin – John Dickson Carr (1972)

HungryGoblinAdmit it, you didn’t see this one coming.  No one expects The Hungry Goblin.  Neither, truthfully, did I.  After all, this is a difficult book to track down.  Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money.  But why would you?  There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr.  The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.

A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years.  We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963.  From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C.  Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.

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Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“In all ages, everything changes.  Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change.  But fear is the same.  Only fear is the same.”

FearIsTheSameThe only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale.  It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category).  In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.

Yes, you read that correctly, time travel.  If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.  Whoa there, it’s alright.  I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court.  The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow.  Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so.  The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right?  Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on.  Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.

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